Mathew Harper’s Book Debuts with ‘A Handful of Seashells’
Harper comes from a middle class family. In 1987, after two years of school in England he came across an advertisement in Daily Telegraph for a teaching position in Honduras. Harper turned down officers training course at the Royal Military Academy at Sand Hurst for a teaching position in Santa Helena island-a place with no electricity, and few people who could read or write.
While Santa Helena was no place to advance in British Military or society, it was a perfect place to study the complex, rugged characters as eccentric as the island itself. Back then Bay Islands and especially Santa Helena was a place stuck in a time vortex: full of colorful and eccentric individuals rugged as the sea that sustained them.
Today Harper is polishing his writing. Harper is fascinated by the tweaking of sentences of his stories until they become little masterpieces of sound and meaning. One of the most beautiful and insightful phrases in the book is where Harper describes his time on a remote beach on a Honduran fishing bank. “Being my mother’s son, I took a handful of colorful shells from the beach, selected the best, and put them in my pocket to remember that day in that most idyllic of places.”
Harper’s favorite writer is Earnest Hemmingway and like that American writer he paints Bay Islands full of colorful, gritty characters with their dilemmas and adventures. “What I enjoy about writing is painting word pictures,” said Harper.
Harper always liked the adventurous Ernest Hemingway and nostalgic James Joyce, eloquent Albert Camus and was fascinated by the reclusive Englishman James Hamilton Patterson. Harper himself is a character living a life of adventure and mentorship. After working at a seafood packing plant and at RECO (Roatan Electric Company) he has introduced the game of rugby to Honduras and he served as British Honorary Consul to the Bay Islands. He was eventually elected on the board of RECO and made his way up from a meter reader, studying and starting his own electrical company Green Hill Energy.
Now, after 35 years of living on the islands, Mathew Harper spends much of his time behind a desk in a sterile, white and air conditioned office. By day he is the operations manager at RECO and his work is often stressful. Writing has been a cantharis for Harper.
During the forced COVID lockdowns he found time to self-reflect and rewrite some stories he wrote down before. He was diagnosed with depression and found that one way of fighting it was to write and to edit older stories he had written down years ago, but put aside. This is how the idea for “A handful of Seashells” came about.
Then Harper decided to bite the bullet. He wrote at night and produced a collection of stories that capture the spirit of the Bay Islands and the souls that made them their home: simple, rugged people, eccentrics and desperados.
The stories featured in “A Handful of Seashells” are autobiographical in nature and follow Harper’s adventures in Saint Helena, Roatan and on Honduran fishing banks. His first story – “Dragon” is a story of a fishing trip he made alone on his father’s in law cut out paddle dory named Dragon.
Harper is fascinated by the tweaking of sentences of his stories until they become little masterpieces.
The story describes the stress of young fatherhood and effect of family bickering. Harper is wrestling not only with the dory, but with a dragon of his childhood dreams and youthful expectations. The story is melancholic and at moments harsh as a paper cuts. Especially as Harper describes his in-laws and their expectations of him. The author does that while painting a watercolor of 1990s Saint Helena and Barbareta.
Both Harper’s stories and his writing style are reminiscent of Jack London, He is often harsh describing his characters, but honest. He is in fact thoughtful and caring. He finds beauty and meaning in the most mundane parts of life. “A complex character like we all are coming to live here,” he described Adolf Ulrich, a German man from Breslau who moved to Saint Helene and married a local lady.
In his stories Mathew deals with the subject of seeking recognition and approval of his fellow men. One of them is a rough and awkward German man bent over by life and age. Harper tells a story of their encounters, competition and finally comradely. Ulrich first come to the Bay Islands when he worked on the treasure hunting boat called the Rambler that sunk just past Fort Cay in Port Royal.
While Harper is sometimes harsh with his depictions of characters; but he is also honest and sensitive. He is even honest with himself. He describes coming to the islands as a 22-year-old lad and then abandoning his respected profession to marry and lead meager existence spear fishing and cultivating cassava while supporting his wife.
“Gladiator” is the longest, central story of the book. It is story about Harpers trip to lobster fishing grounds. It is also a story about Harper’s final initiations into the ways islanders make a living and go about their lives: from husking and chipping coconuts to freediving. From a schoolteacher Harper had become the student of everyone and everything. He became “a public school boy from a good family who ended up in the middle of Spanish Caribbean hustling to make ends meet.”
The stories in “A Handful of Seashells” are stories that remind us what an adventure and a roller coaster life really is. We cannot plan things out and even as things settle in away, we least expect them to. Harper’s stories also remind us of the beauty that a simple, honest life can bring.
“A Handful of Seashells” is self-published by Harper with Gatekeeper Press. The publisher helped Harper with editing proofreading and laying out the book. The book is available on Amazon and ibooks and on Roatan at Waves of Art gallery.
Harper is not only a writer; he is a historian.
He has been promoting the understanding of Bay Islands history like few people have, in fact like no one had before in many ways.
As a member of the Royal Historical Society… He often requests scans of documents and books form the British National Archives. He studies books and documents written by explorers, archeologists, mapmakers.
A lot of information Harper found in wills and testaments.
Harper is working on second book now. His next book is about a history of the Bay Islands and focuses on the characters involved in shaping this archipelago in 1700s and 1800s. Harper is researching the life of Admiral Nelson who was active as a young Naval Lieutenant in Western Caribbean. He is also interested in Colonel McDonald, who booted the Spaniards out of Fort Cay in Roatan’s Port Royal.
Another character was Sarah Forrester, who lived and died on Barbareta. She was employed looking after the island owner’s land and investments.